For nearly a decade, a building that once housed a Home Depot and a neighboring car dealership in Northeast Austin have remained almost completely unused, slowly deteriorating behind chain-link fences.
Since the city purchased the two lots, totaling about 20 acres, plans to develop the property into a police substation and a courthouse have been all but abandoned. The parking lots now serve as makeshift depositories for thousands of trash bins, lawn mowing equipment or whatever else the city can’t find a place for at any given time.
“The project was not prioritized by the city, and the property was just allowed to deteriorate,” Austin City Council Member Greg Casar said.
But that could all change for this property, which, despite its current appearance, is considered part of a historical tract purchased by African-Americans in the 19th century that became home to large annual meetings for many Central Texas Baptist churches.
The City Council approved a resolution last month that directs the city staff to consider a host of options for the former Home Depot site at St. Johns Avenue and Interstate 35.
Possible new directions for the dilapidated site include income-restricted housing, recreational spaces, unspecified government facilities and partnerships with nonprofits or the school district. The site is also one of several city-owned tracts recently identified as a possible location for a Major League Soccer stadium.
“The people in the neighborhood want to see something done with it that is useful to the neighborhood or beneficial to the children,” Casar said.
The city bought the Home Depot site just as the big box retailer was set to close that location in 2008, paying $8.1 million. In 2013, the city bought the neighboring car dealership site for $2.9 million.
The Rev. Daryl Horton, a member of St. John Regular Baptist Association, said several predominantly African-American churches are in the area, including Black’s Memorial Missionary Baptist Church, which is adjacent to the Home Depot site.
“It’s been close to 150 years or so since it started out with a lot of African-Americans who were mostly sharecroppers that were able to move to that part of town and have small plots of land,” Horton said.
Horton, a minister at Mount Zion Baptist Church in East Austin, said he was glad the idea to build a police station at the Home Depot plot fell by the wayside.
“It isn’t ideal to put a police substation or courthouse there, mostly because of the message that it sends — that the reason they put that there is because it is a neighborhood of people that are less financially stable,” Horton said.
Austin police union President Ken Casaday told the Statesman that he was fine with the property being used for something other than a police substation as long as the city built another substation elsewhere in North Austin.
“We have been bursting at the seams at the north substation for quite a long time,” Casaday said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in Northeast or Northwest Austin; we just need a new substation up there.”
Casar said the new direction for the site is an opportunity to correct a history of being ignored.
“It is clear that District 4 (Casar’s district) often suffers from neglect from the city,” he said. “And I think it is time to turn the page on that neglect.”